Except for a few special events, such as New Year's Day and the "Cottingham anniversary", most of the hymns were written for the informal Sunday evening fellowship group in Olney. They were first sung in these locations:
Still Newton held out hope that Cowper might rally back to health, but finally he had to conced: “my deference to the judgment and desires of others, has at length overcome the reluctance I long felt to see them in print, while I had so few of my friend's hymns to insert in the collection.”
Newton copied the hymns into two notebooks prior to publication.
"Volume 2" is held by the Houghton Library, Harvard University, purchased by auction.
We do not know were Volume 1 is and would love to find out.
Please let us know if you come across it.
All images from this notebook are reproduced here by kind permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass, from MS Eng 1317.
The notebook was digitised thanks to a grant from The Pratt Green Trust.
As Newton entered the hymns into the above notebook mostly in chronological order
, this has made it possible, through matching his manuscript hymn numbers (not the same as the printed Olney Hymns
numbers) with the identical hymn numbers mentioned in his diary, to learn some background to many of the hymns.
For instance, No. 200, Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion city of our God
, was written for Easter Day.
The sermons he was preaching at that time reflected some of the themes used in this hymn,
e.g. in a sermon series on 2 Samuel 23:5
... he hath made with me an everlasting covenant
... he wrote:
"Believers – rejoice in this Covenant. Walk about this Sion, consider her foundations and all the towers thereof and mark well the bulwark. See how it is fixed upon an immoveable rock, guarded by almighty power, encompassed with infinite love
Preparing the hymns for publication
From Newton's diary, we can trace the progress of the hymns as they went to the press:
[all images of diary extracts are reproduced for use on the JNP website by kind permission of Princeton University Library, John Newton Collection, C0199
14 January 1779
I write few letters now, being much and chiefly employed in transcribing my Hymns for the press. Help me to look to Thee for a blessing upon the publication.
19 January 1779
Busied one way or other, chiefly upon the hymns.
28 January 1779
I finished transcribing the hymns, only that I have a few short ones to make, suited to the introduction and conclusion of divine worship.
11 February 1779
I am chiefly employed in forwarding and finishing the Hymnbook, which is now almost done. May it please Thee to favour its publication and accompany it with thy blessing.
13 February 1779
This day by thy blessing, my gracious Lord, I finished the Hymns and purpose sending the book on Monday to be printed. O Thou God of all Grace, may it please thee to bless the publication. My heart devotes it to Thee, and to Thy service. I trust thy good Spirit and influences produced it. Whatever I am, have or do is of Thee, for in myself there is no sufficiency. O may I devote all to thee, and never aim short of thy glory. Another week closes upon me in peace. May thy grace make me thankful.
15 February 1779
Yesterday I sent off the Hymn book, may thy blessing go with it, and own it to the use and acceptance of thy people.
26 June 1779
My hymn book is printed and will soon come abroad; may thy blessing accompany it, and if thou art pleased to honour me may I heartily abase myself in thy sight.
13 July 1779
Received a number of Olney Hymns
from London – O my Lord I devote this attempt to thy glory and thy service. Surely I offer thee but thine own. The sufficiency was all of thee. O let not self feed upon what is thy right. Do thou accompany them with the unction of thy Spirit.
[Newton inscribed the first copy for his wife]
31 July 1779
Copied from another volume
of Olney Hymns presented to his wife
by the Rev John Newton.
To my Dearest Dear
from her most
accompanied with his best
that all she reads of his writing
and all that
he speaks in her hearing
may be owned & blessed
by the Lord
to the benefit & comfort
of her soul.
Olney 13th July
A later edition of Olney Hymns,
into which the adjacent 1779
inscription was copied
(presumably by a trusted family friend who had borrowed the original 1779 edition which had belonged
to Mary Newton)
Received another parcel of the hymns. They seem likely to sell and to spread. May thy blessing accompany them.
went through many editions, published for instance in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow and York; it was also eagerly published in America, for example in Philadelphia, New York and Newburyport.
A digital version is available at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL)
We will be adding more hymns to this website, but for the sake of time will first give attention to those featured in the manuscript notebook.